New funding changes some structure to program

Olivia Warner

By Jerry Duggan | Bond LSC

Mizzou was always near the top of Olivia Warner’s list for Ph.D. programs.

Its renowned psychological sciences program, sound training in Warner’s specialty of addiction and supportive, collaborative atmosphere that she didn’t see at other places made it a top choice on paper.

But she was not introduced to her most formative program in terms of professional development until she had already moved across the country from Arizona to mid-Missouri. Within her first month, Warner learned of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers/Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (MARC/IMSD) program.

“I found out about IMSD right away, and I’m glad I did,” Warner said. “Without this program, I would have had a tougher time networking on campus, and wouldn’t have picked up a lot of the skills that I have today.”

MARC/IMSD is a federal program that partners with universities to identify and train the next generation of researchers in biomedical and behavioral sciences. It provides research, mentoring, academic and social support, and professional development to help them along the way to doctoral degrees that will lead them to diversify the workforce. These underserved students include minorities from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, those with disabilities, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and first-generation college students. The program gives them a helping hand in graduate school.

“Evidence says teams from diverse backgrounds approach problems differently and, ultimately, better in terms of solutions than teams of individuals from similar backgrounds,” said Dr. Mark Hannink, director of MARC/IMSD, Bond Life Sciences Center principal investigator and Biochemistry faculty member. “Data drives the National Institutes of Health’s recognition that entire research enterprises benefit from different perspectives and approaches.”

For 20 years, Mizzou was the recipient of an MARC/IMSD grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that provided mentored research training and professional development to both undergraduate and graduate students. Hannink said that while the mentoring and professional development will continue, there will be changes in MARC/IMSD’s structure with the new grant. The most significant change is that the undergraduate and graduate training programs are now separated into two different grant-funded programs. The graduate MARC/IMSD program, which will become a T32 training program, has recently received $2.2M in funding from NIH to support training of 25 students over five years. A number of units at MU, including the School of Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Engineering, College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Division of Biological Sciences and the Graduate School, have provided funding to support training of at least 10 additional students. The MARC/IMSD program is truly a partnership between NIH and MU that will have a significant impact on diversity in biomedical research.

“This is more than just a scholarship,” Hannink said. “It’s a training program, in which students develop three different areas of expertise that our students need to develop to become successful scientists: professional, technical and operational skills.”

These objectives include increasing the percentage of underrepresented minorities in participating biomedical predoctoral students to 20% from 16%, to improve the Ph.D. completion rate for such students to 90% from its current 84%. An end goal is that 30% of trainees obtain external fellowships during their time in the program.

While MARC/IMSD provides two years of financial support to participants, its key focus is to foster professional development programs, workshops and support mechanisms to ensure that students in the program have whatever they need to succeed.

Coming out of Arizona State University with degrees in Psychology and Human Development, Warner worked full time for three years and volunteered in a lab, researching the ways in which contextual and interpersonal factors influence alcohol use motives and subsequent problematic use.

Despite significant research experience, Warner’s transition into the six-year clinical psych sciences Ph.D. program would have been much more difficult if not for MARC/IMSD.

“I was connected with Dr. Hannink pretty much immediately after I arrived on campus, and surrounded with people in the program that had a lot of shared experiences with me,” she said. “The program provided extra support and a sense of togetherness for us, which is really important since a lot of us are underrepresented in Ph.D. programs. It really helps to be around a group of people you can relate to and connect with.”

Under the new grant, much of the mentoring aspect of the program will remain the same, but the new format will be much more explicit in terms of the specific training activities used to develop said technical, operational and professional skills.

In addition to moral support and togetherness, MARC/IMSD aims to equip participants with academic skills. For Warner, who just completed her second year of the program, this meant taking a professional development class taught by Hannink. The class included a segment on public speaking which was especially beneficial for Warner.

“Having public speaking and presentation skills is a large part of any successful researcher’s skill set, so it was really helpful for me to be able to develop those skills early on in the program,” Warner said.

Participants also complete rotations in other labs besides their own as part of the program in order to broaden their knowledge about all areas of research, and are given opportunities to network with experts in the field. Many cycle through labs within Bond LSC.

“The next generation of researchers need to have exposure to disciplines outside their degree, to be able to talk with people doing research that’s very different than their own and collaborate effectively,” Hannink said.

Warner wants to be able to continue her research in some capacity for the rest of her career, so being a well-rounded graduate able to face any challenges thrown at her is invaluable.

“Everything I’ve been a part of in this program, from the professional development class, to being exposed to areas of research I might not have otherwise known anything about, has been very beneficial,” she said.

The science community as a whole reaps benefits from this development.

“Any research effort is more effective if it’s inclusive and brings different perspectives and approaches to the problem, and that’s how the skills IMSD teaches really translate long term into a better biomedical workforce.”

MU received a National Institutes of Health five-year grant for $2,228,008 to continue its focus on minority graduate student development in biomedical and behavioral sciences. This grant started February 1, 2020.